What has gone before: Coffee shop owner Andrew Weazle spills coffee made with magic beans into a planter containing a dead bonsai tree, causing a massive ash tree to grow in its place overnight. Following a miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. The succubus creates a doppelganger of Andrew, and the pair of them plot something dire for the magic Tree. Andrew's friends Lara and Blackout rescue him from near death, only to find themselves pursued by the succubus. Meanwhile, Andrew's spirit travels the Tree...
"...the role of guardian is an office, like any other office. You aren't better than the people around you because you were chosen to guard an avatar of the Tree," John said, pipe stem clamped between his teeth. He tried drawing smoke from the pipe and realized it had gone out. Taking the pipe from his mouth he turned it upside down and patted the bowl with the palm of his hand, spilling tobacco out onto the ground, which Andrew realized, was actually tree bark.
"What John's trying to say is that if you get out of this fine mess you've landed yourself in," Jack said, handing Andrew a mug of beer, "is that taking care of the tree is important work, but its best done with the rest of the world in mind. You can't go thinking the world owes you a favor because of what you'll give up, or undertake, or even now, suffer because of the Tree. The work of the guardian is cosmic butler. You are the door-warden to the Tree, not its bloody gardener."
"Which is why its brilliant that you're a...what did you call it again?" Charles said, sipping his own beer.
"A barista. It's just a fancy term for coffee maker," Andrew said.
"But its a service oriented job," Charles said. "And even the smallest act of service echoes the greatest sacrifice. Making a cup of coffee for a customer is the first step on the journey that could lead you to giving your life for someone else."
"Not necessarily a journey anyone wants to take, C.W." said Jack.
The golden light which suffused their surroundings at the top of the tree seem to flicker for a moment, as if a shadow had passed across the unseen sun. The four of them stopped talking and looked around.
"What the hell was that?" Jack asked.
A distant rumble, followed by another flicker, and a marked dimming of the light.
"Not good," John said, putting his pipe away and getting to his feet. "We'd best be on our way. I think we've told you a good lot you can put to work," he said to Andrew.
"Where are you going?" Andrew asked.
"The last time I saw this happen was in 1945," John said. An avatar of the Tree was destroyed in Nagasaki, and those of us who traveled it in those days witnessed a dimming of that golden light. It means an avatar of the Tree is on the verge of being destroyed."
"My Tree?" Andrew asked.
"Impossible to say," John replied. "There are many worlds connected to the Tree, as many as there are branches," he said, gesturing to the massive green expanse beneath them. "But we know yours was likely to be in such danger."
Jack and Charles stood, placing their beer mugs down on the table. "He really ought to stick to tea and coffee," Jack said, waving at Ratty, who was wiping down the coffee bar.
"Well, I give him points for good effort," Charles said.
"Thank you," Andrew said abruptly. "Thank you for helping me."
"We'll see you again," Jack said, smiling his expansive smile. "If you make it out of this mess alive, we'll send someone to teach you how to travel the Tree."
"How will I know you've sent them?"
"Look for the red outfit," Jack replied, and walked to the edge of the cafe's great platform. A bus, hovering in the air, was waiting for them. "Cheers, Andrew."
"Cheers," he said, and watched as the three men boarded the bus, and flew away.
Andrew sat there, looking at the green expanse of the Tree. He wondered what was happening to his body, and felt a twinge of guilt for how badly he had messed things up. He took another sip of the beer, which tasted strange to him. More like a spiced wine...or champagne even.
"How you like?" Ratty asked, clearing the other mugs off the table.
"It's an odd taste for a beer," Andrew said.
"Not beer!" Ratty said, shaking his head, and bristling his tail. "Mead. Made from sap of the Tree."
"Of course," Andrew smiled. "Just like everything else here." He took another drink.
"Make you feel better quick," Ratty said. "Tree sap heal quick quick, quick sticks!" The squirrel pondered the half-drank mugs. "They no like?"
"I don't think they knew what they were drinking," Andrew said, and tilted his head back, drinking the sweet, thick mead down in thirsty gulps. A delicious warmth flooded through him. Through my body? he thought, and then laughed. His body wasn't here...it couldn't be. It was back in the real world...
And then the vision of gold and green, of Ratty and the cafe was torn away again, and he took a lungful of bitter cold air. He blinked, and looked around. Once again, he found himself wishing he hadn't come back.